The great rivalries of the Indian autobahn : part II

Due to the low cost of living standards and even lower penetration of cars, India has never been a large market for big sedans and saloons. For a pie that is small, there is not much space for too many players to fill in, which is one reason why we have not seen too many intense battles in the sedan space.

Even then in the Honda City, India does have a remarkable success story in the sedans that has continued for well over a decade. That domination seems to be at a close and that is one issue I have discussed at length in my blogs. But it is not always that City has had a free run in the otherwise sparsely populated entry–executive sedan segment.

Honda City Vs Mitsubishi Lancer
Back in the innocent pre internet days of the 90s, when India was just beginning to enjoy the luxuries of liberalisation, there was a pitched battle for dominance in India between a legendary performance car and a quality conscious manufacturer making a low cost car for markets like India and Thailand. Most of us associate City with quality, reliability and high cost but when it was first developed it was actually Honda’s attempt at downsizing. Globally the City was launched in Bangkok in April 1996 and when Honda started building its plant in Greater Noida, City was the car that it was intended for.

The Lancer on the other hand was a proven performer from the house of Mitsubishi. It was and is a car that has rallying in its DNA and even today a late 90s Mitsubishi Lancer packs a punch like few can. Atleast when compared to similar decade old models.

While the entry of Honda brought City into the country that was still plagued by age old archaic sedans and grappling with the lack of imagination and confidence in the market by other players, Mitsubishi’s was a back door entry in collaboration with Hindustan Motors, the erstwhile big daddy of Indian car industry. It was collaboration itself that was the reason for the failure of as capable a car as the Lancer.

Launched in June 1998, within a year of City’s, Lancer provided the first stern test to the Honda. Though it did not count for much at that time as fuel prices were a fraction of what they are today, Lancer also offered the first diesel engine in its segment. The fact that 13 years down the line, City is losing ground to others because of the same reason amply proves how ahead of its times in India the Lancer was.

Nevertheless Lancer gave a tough fight to the City for atleast two years and also earned bragging rights by scoring higher in the annual JD Power surveys for the least number of defects and high customer satusfaction levels, from Honda for 3 years. But the ill health of its distribution channel which was suffering due to HM’s poor financial situation undermined the potential of the Lancer to ever overtake the City in the market.

A model that looks dated now, the Lancer story was a tragic one in India and the same fate is in store for another capable car, the Cedia.

India is now the only market where 20-25 Lancers are produced and sold every month and though these will always be ahead on the roads, City is in a different zone altogether now.

Honda City Vs Maruti SX4
City had a relatively clean easy run in the market till the Goliath of the Indian car industry Maruti decided to test its strength in the summer of 2007. Having burnt its fingers with the ambitious but flawed Baleno through the early part of the decade and buoyed by the success of its hatchback Swift, Maruti thought it had enough in its tank to prod into unchartered territory.

With the “man amongst cars” SX4, Maruti built a alter ego to the City. SX4 was everything the City was not, big, muscular, sturdy and rough. City always carried a sense of pride for being calm, serene and refined, a symphony where not a note would be out of place even if it is played a hundred times. SX4 was a deliberate cacaphony that revelled in its unpredictablity and urged you to dare. Among petrol cars, SX4 was also the more powerful one.

To make matters even more interesting, Maruti priced it attrociously low and packed it with features. The SX4 in 2007, was over a lakh cheaper than the City and had some features that were not available even on a high end City. Clearly, Maruti was leaving no stone unturned to unsettle the leader. Price war was something a small car giant like Maruti knew too well and Honda knew nothing. Worse it did not even believe in it.

For the first 4 months, SX4 stormed the market. The market was taken in by its package and Maruti’s credibility for offering the lowest sales and service ever. City had withstood such onalughts in the past especially from the Fiesta, but this time it seemed Maruti was winning. SX4 however had one key Maruti element missing in it– high fuel economy. Built for performance, it was not in SX4’s genes to be frugal.

As word about its fuel guzzling characteristic and relatively poor build quality went around, the initial euphoria dissipated and City staged an expected recovery. By the time the fiscal drew to a close, City had distanced itself from the others.

What aided Honda’a cause even more was its routine 5 year model change and in October out came the new City. This one was more powerful (than even the SX4), looked classy and more importantly with its 1.6 litre Ivtec engine, it was way more fuel efficient.

Honda Civic Vs Toyota Corolla

The rivalry between the Civic and Corolla is as legendary as these cars themselves. This one is a game of one upmanship that is fought globally and the Indian chapter began with the launch of the Civic in 2006.

Though a decade old platform and one that is older than the City, Honda waited for sometime before it brought the Civic into India. Toyota on the other hand due to the lack of a sedan smaller and cheaper than the Corolla worldwide, launched the car here

Though they compete with each other, the two cars are quite different from each other and aptly represent what the two companies stand for. Corolla is low on style and design but scores high on reliability, durability and practicality. The Civic with its space age looks is very high on style and design but scores low on fuel economy and its awfully low ground clearance makes it sort of impractical in India.

By the time the Civic came about though, Honda had already establlshed itself as the aspirational brand in India. With the sheer force of the brand and the relatively unexciting feel of a Corolla, the Civic steamrolled every car in that segment (the Skoda Octavia was a strong competitor too). For the first two years, Civic sold almost three times as much as the Corolla.

Realising the need to revitalise the brand and make some noise about it, Toyota relaunched the Corolla as the Altis in 2008. Though there were no revolutionary changes in the car, it coincided with the subsequent slowdown in the domestic car industry. As a result, Civic saw a steep decline in sales as the segment got brutally squeezed.

All Toyota had to do was hold on to the numbers it was doing and with a supposedly new car in its line up, that was never a difficult task. Since 2008 onwards, it is the Corolla that has ruled the charts as Civic, now a 5 year old car in India finds fewer customers.

Toyota followed up the Altis launch with a diesel variant in 2010 to exploit the rising preference for diesel cars in India as also hit at Honda’s soft spot. Knowing that Honda does not have a diesel engine for the Civic, it now looks like a rivalry where the Corolla will hold the aces till a new Civic comes to town.

Other notable mentions :

Maruti Esteem Vs Hyundai Accent

Ford Endeavour Vs Honda CRV

Honda Accord VS Skoda Superb

Skoda Octavia VS Chevrolet Optra

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